Silvio Laccetti

is a professor of social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

As December becomes January, America's problems place it at a turning point in its history. Many of our social institutions are losing credibility and viability.

This moment is as propitious as it is demanding of reform. We must act creatively, deliberately and dispassionately to perfect our Union.

Here are some national New Year's resolutions for the short term:

Overhaul our financial system.

The equities markets are the engine of this system, and no fuels or additives - that is, bailouts - can fix it. Our markets run on base motives of fear and greed. They dim America's light in a darkening world.

Radically retool the engine. Eliminate derivatives, options, short-selling, and speculation in natural resources. Supposedly, these practices were developed to eliminate risk, but the financial collapse has shown that risk can't be eliminated. For those who "hedge" against it, there is the lesson of Bernard Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

Traders and speculators play with funds we provide via our investments, enriching themselves daily in the markets. Holdings of mutual funds in retirement plans have skyrocketed from $320 billion in 1991 to $4.6 trillion last year. Yet, how much will your portfolio be worth in January?

Reform the tax code.

It serves too many private, powerful, entrenched interests. Worse, it separates citizens into antagonistic classes. The simplest solution is a flat tax.

Refocus the health-care system.

The whole idea of managed care is absurd. Every layer of "management" between patient and provider just adds to the cost.

Cut out the layers, and establish fair fees for Medicare and Medicaid services so doctors won't abandon the programs. Whatever the source of funding, citizens must have access to cures.

Here are some even more challenging resolutions for the longer term:

Mend a tattered nation.

Are we still a nation, or merely a collection of cultural and political interest groups? The media term is

culture wars

, but what's occurring is cultural anarchy.

If you can organize a little, or blog some, then you have a cause, and vice versa. Seemingly, almost every cause can be justified.

Nowhere is the tattering more evident than in the erosion of the meaning and value of citizenship. Citizenship must be precious, or it is useless. Citizenship can't be given away; it must be earned, because it carries responsibilities.

To restore the value of citizenship, all citizens should spend one year in national service programs. As a condition of citizenship, legal immigrants also should provide such service. In such a society, the term

illegal immigrant

is an oxymoron.

Cross-examine the legal system.

Does ours still work? As one expert has phrased it, "The legal system is our primary source of agreed values." But the very way in which our laws are made and phrased (and laden with pork) makes them impenetrable to the ordinary citizen.

The proliferation of lawyers makes matters worse. Get-what-you-can and win-at-any-cost attitudes weaken the foundations of law.

When culture wars enter the legal arena, the whole system breaks down. Consider gay marriage. Opponents want to outlaw it with a constitutional amendment - a change to the fundamental legal code. Supporters want to find some local judge to make case law approving it.

Our source of agreed values is now our area of greatest contention.

Promote planetary protection.

Our planetary ecosystem faces challenges from environmental pollution, which impacts all life-forms. Forget about plans for energy vouchers, which would guarantee a permanent underdeveloped world while the great economic powers continue their ways.

America must invest in green jobs and technology, as President-elect Barack Obama has promised. If we are serious, we must make the environment a key point of foreign and domestic policy. There can be no half-measures: We're either green or we are yellow.

Every day, our great country gets a little more tattered and worn. Whether we continue to evolve as a beacon to the world depends on solving these problems. If we can't or don't, history will mourn our passing.

E-mail Silvio Laccetti at slaccett@stevens.edu.